Meagan Youngblood, 10, of Nashville, Ga., swings along while brother Tyler, 13, looks on. The two visited Chehaw park recently with their grandparents, Mike and Jany Walker of Ashburn, Ga.
ALBANY -- Chehaw, a park that has provided fun, adventure and discovery in Southwest Georgia for nearly 40 years, is blazing a new trail -- this time, the campaign trail.
Chehaw is vying with dozens of parks across the nation to win a $100,000 recreation grant from Coca-Cola and earn the title, "America's Favorite Park."
The second-place finisher will receive $50,000 and the third, $25,000.
Chehaw has posted its own giant "yard sign" near the front entrance and also fliers at key locations throughout the property, urging supporters to vote.
"We really need your vote to allow Chehaw to be the best family opportunity in southwest Georgia ever," said Kevin Hils, the park's zoo director.
Chehaw officials say any prize money would allow them to move faster on some enhancements that are planned or already started, such as a zoo expansion that would bring native animals like black bear, cougars, eagles and bison closer to the site of an annual American Indian festival.
Chehaw fans can cast single votes online as many times as they want through Coca-Cola's Live Positively Web site: http://www.livepositively.com/#/home.
With a mobile phone app called Foursquare, they can cast 100 votes at a time when they check in from the park.
At one point this week, Chehaw ranked 59th with 19,051 votes, but Chehaw officials expect this to change when supporters learn of the contest.
"I'm hoping they respond by getting out there and voting like I do every day, getting on the computer," Hils said. "I'm always optimistic. We've got to keep the word going. I'm hoping we can turn the tide. I believe it's just a matter of getting out there and letting folks know you've got to vote. That's all there is to it."
The vote totals are constantly changing on Coca-Cola's online scoreboard, a listing of the top 25 parks.
The top three this week were:
Pratt Park in Prattville, Ala., with 4.5 million votes.
Krull Park in Newfane, N.Y., with 3.7 million votes.
Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon, Fla., with 2.6 million votes.
Some Chehaw visitors vote on a laptop in the park's gift shop. Others, like Amanda Mallow of Albany, learn about the contest while visiting the park and return home to vote from their own computers.
"We'll vote as soon as we get home," said Mallow, who visited Chehaw recently with her friend, Angela Michlig of Leesburg, and their five children.
"It's a great place for the kids to play," Michlig said as the children devoured a pizza on a picnic table and then rushed off to play.
Chehaw has a distinguished history that has continued into the 21st century. It began in 1937, when the land that was once occupied by a Creek Indian tribe with the same name became one of Georgia's original state parks. Later, the state transferred ownership to the city, and the park has grown from the original 586 acres to more than 800 acres.
Chehaw attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, and its zoo is one of only two in Georgia -- the other in Atlanta -- to earn the prestigious Association of Zoos and Aquariums certification.
Besides the zoo, with about 150 animal species from North America, Africa, Australia and South America, Chehaw's attractions include a campground, picnic areas, a nationally sanctioned Bicycle Motocross course, a disc golf course, an 8-mile mountain-biking trail and a playground that is usually teeming with children climbing, swinging and tapping out melodies on outdoor percussion instruments.
About a dozen of Chehaw's animal species, such as it's red wolves, are considered threatened and the zoo is helping to ensure they don't become extinct.
Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter has been urging people to vote and to help the park win the prize money, along with the title of "America's Favorite Park."
"That's the kind of thing we're looking for to enhance the visitor experience," he said.